History

The Weeks Following July 4, 1776 Were Difficult Ones For America

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By Ken Zurski

On July 8 1776, just days after the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence, a copy was sent to General George Washington who was preparing for battle in New York City. Washington was anxiously awaiting word from the assembly in Philadelphia. He knew how important the declaration would be to his troops.

That’s because up to that point the New York contingent of the Continental Army, who had been together for nearly a full year, hadn’t fired a single shot yet. They were frustrated, antsy and for the most part continually drunk. The declaration would help boost morale, Washington thought.

Already, talk of such a declaration had been stirring up emotions within the ranks.

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In May of that year, in words later shaped by Thomas Jefferson, Virginian George Mason drew up a sentence about being “born equally” with “inherent natural rights.” And on June 7, Virginian Richard Henry Lee, introduced a congressional resolution declaring that the United Colonies “ought to be free and independent states.” Even Washington , in the spring of 1776, crafted a statement that supported the idea of independence as an incentive to fight. “My countrymen, I know, from their form of government and steady attachment therefore to royalty, will come reluctantly into the idea of independency,” he wrote.

 

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So on July 9, at six o clock in evening, Washington ordered his troops to gather. He had previewed the contents of the document and included it in his “General’s Orders,” which would be read aloud to the men.

But it came with a caveat. Washington had warned the troops of the consequences that any official documentation of independence would mean if defeated. Treason, he implored, was something the British ruler did not take lightly. Traitors in the past were subject to gruesome disemboweling and beheadings, he explained. Washington himself knew if captured, he would be hanged.

This was literally a fight to the end, he argued.

The men stood with anticipation as the “General’s Orders” were read. Patiently they waited as several mundane paragraphs of typical military reports and directives were announced. One included the procurement of a chaplain assigned to each regiment. “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger,” the missive proclaimed.

Then finally…

“…The Honorable the Continental Congress impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and necessity, having been pleased to dissolve the connection which subsisted between the Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of America, free and independent STATES.”

Upon hearing the words, the men let up “three huzzas” a witness reported. In fact, their enthusiasm led to an act of debauchery that irked Washington. The soldiers marched down Broadway Street and proceeded to topple the large statue of King George III, decapitating it in the process.

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Washington was livid. He told the troops that while their “high spirits” was commendable, their behavior was not. The general wanted an army of orderly respectful men, not savages. Even defacing the likeness of the British King was inadmissible in his eyes.

Blood and Slaughter

However sanctimonious that may have sounded, Washington must have been pleased that the statue’s 4 ,000 pounds of gilded lead was melted down to make nearly 43-thousand musket bullets.

Washington was also thrilled by his troop’s eagerness to fight. “They [the British] will have to wade through much blood and slaughter before they can carry out any part of our works,” he wrote about the impending conflict.

Then on July 12, several British ships, including the forty-gun Phoenix, cut through a thin American defense and blasted the city. It was a show of force meant to rattle the colonists into submissiveness. It certainly rattled the nerves of Washington’s untested soldiers who were shaken and distressed by the cries of women and children fleeing the blasts. There was little resistance.

Washington later expressed his disappointment. “A weak curiosity at such a time makes a man look mean and contemptible,” he said chastising the troops.

After the embarrassment, British commander William Howe offered Washington clemency for the rebels if the General surrendered. Washington flatly refused.

The following month, it would get worse. Due to more defeats, the rebels were forced to flee New York to Pennsylvania and reorganize.  Later that year, in December, Washington would famously cross the icy Delaware River for a surprise attack in Trenton, New Jersey.

The Revolutionary War would continue for another seven years.

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The ‘Brain Band’ of John Philip Sousa

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By Ken Zurski

Bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa was never one to hurry a piece of music. A tune would come to him and he would play it over and over in his head until it was just right – or as he called it, the “brain band” would perform it before a single note was ever recorded on paper.

That’s exactly what happened in 1896, while Sousa was returning from a trip overseas.

Sousa was forced to cut the trip short after receiving news that his longtime manager had passed away.  Pacing the deck of the steamer Teutonic, Sousa heard a tune in his head and the “brain band” took over.

“Day after day,” he said,” as I walked, it persisted in crashing into my very soul.”

When Sousa returned to America, he set it to paper: “It was a genuine inspiration, irresistible, complete, and definite and I could not rest until I had finished the composition.”

“Stars and Stripes Forever” quickly became Sousa’s most popular march.

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The Immortally Important Fifteen-Star and Fifteen-Stripe Flag

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By Ken Zurski

In December 1794, on the opening day of the Third Congress of the United States, the first order of business concerned the country’s symbol of freedom: the American flag.

In question was whether or not it should be changed.

Senator Stephen R. Bradley had introduced legislation that called for the flag to carry fifteen stripes and fifteen stars, two of each added to the current flag, to represent the newest additions to the Republic, his home state of Vermont and Kentucky. The measure passed through the Senate without debate.

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Stephen R. Bradley

The House however was another matter. Traditionalists wanted to keep the flag as originally intended. “We may go on adding and altering at this rate for a hundred years to come,” a Massachusetts Federalist argued.

Another lawmaker named Israel Smith was also against change. “Let us have no more alterations of this sort,” he insisted, citing among other things, the expenditure. Basically, he contended, continually altering the flag would be a costly venture. “Let the flag be permanent,” Smith demanded.

In the end, a slight majority agreed the flag should represent all states, lest they be offended.

The legislation passed 50-42.

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Nearly two decades later, during the War of 1812, it was the sight of that altered fifteen-star flag flying high above the battle scarred Fort McHenry that inspired a Maryland lawyer to put his emotions into words.  “O, say does that star spangled banner yet wave. O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Eventually the words of Francis Scott Key, who was aboard the British ship Tonnant to negotiate the release of U.S prisoners, was set to music and “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” known today as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was soon being performed at military inspired gatherings.

In 1931, thanks to a congressional resolution, a shortened version of the original song officially became the national anthem of the United States of America.

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(In 1818, the fifteen stars and stripes flag was amended to twenty to represent the addition of Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi.)

This Uninhabited Island is a Good Thing for the Sport of Curling

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By Ken Zurski

Thanks to a small island just off of mainland Scotland in an area known as the Firth of Clyde, a sport which date backs to the early 19th century continues to prosper.

They don’t play the sport of Curling there, nor does anyone actually live there. It’s currently uninhabited by humans. But its resource, the Blue Hone Granite is used for making the stones that gives Curling its unique name, as in the curl of a spinning stone over an icy surface.

Fairy Rock

The 60 million year old island named Ailsa Craig which in Gallic means “Fairy Rock,” although other alternative interpretations include the less fanciful and more directly expressive definition of “Cliff of the English,” is the plug of an extinct volcano. Monks, castles, chapels, a prison and lighthouses are all part of its lore.  In the early 15th century the Ailsa Craig Castle was owned by the monks of Crossraguel Abbey.

But lately, it’s known for two things: birds and curling stones.

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The island is exclusively a bird sanctuary. Puffins and gannets use Ailsa Craig as a breeding ground. This is fairly recent development and only after an infestation of rats first introduced to the island during shipwrecks, were eradicated in the early 1990’s. Once the rats were gone, the birds came back.

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Since 1851, however, the company Kay’s of Scotland, named after its founder Andrew Kay, who established the first curling stone manufacturing business over a hundred years ago, has been harvesting the granite boulders from the island to use in curling stones. Only two places on earth is said to have the Blue Hone or Common Green granite which has a low absorption rate and keeps water from freezing and eroding the stone: Ailsa Craig and the Trefor Granite Quarry in Wales.

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Even today, 60-70 percent of all curling stones comes from granite extracted from Alisa Craig. The company says the last harvest of granite from the Island took place in 2013 when 2,000 tons were extracted, sufficient to fill orders until at least 2020.

Recent efforts have been made to reduce the dependency of the centuries old island as the only supplier of the curling stones, but a plastic substitute and a denser granite found in Canada are relatively new developments and not yet widely accepted or used in the sport.

Not yet, at least.

The Cheese

All this is good news for a sport which has seen a popularity surge in the past decade, especially in North America.

After all, before the discovery of granite on Ailsa Craig, stones used for curling were made of whinestone, often basalt, which was cut into a circular shape called “The Cheese” and weighed 70 pounds or more.

The current stone weight is just under 50 pounds.

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Father’s Day: A ‘Second Christmas’ for Dads

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By Ken Zurski

Nearly every May in the 1930’s, a radio performer named Robert Spere staged rallies in New York City promoting a day set aside not just to honor moms, but dads as well.

His plan was to change “Mother’s Day” to “Parent’s Day.”

Spere, a children’s program host known as “Uncle Robert” told his attentive audience: “We should all have love for mom and dad every day, but ‘Parent’s Day’ is a reminder that both parents should be loved and respected together.”

Mother’s Day became a national day of observance in 1908. But there was no enthusiasm for a day set aside for fathers. “Men scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving,” one historian wrote.

Retailers, however, liked the idea and promoted a “second Christmas” for dads with gifts of tools, neckties and tobacco, instead of flowers and cards. But it never gelled. Even Spere’s “Parent’s Day” idea died when the Great Depression hit.

It wasn’t until 1972, under President Richard Nixon, that “Father’s Day” officially became a national holiday.

Roof Top Barrels Had a Perilously Protective Purpose

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By Ken Zurski

In the mid to late 19th century as railroad lines expanded and towns literally grew on land where the trains ran, depot buildings were built to accommodate riders on the various stops. Today, grainy pictures show the old depots with long stretched decks and indicator signs welcoming passengers to “Ponca City” as the photo below illustrates, among many others.  But look closely and you’ll see large barrels on the rooftops, maybe one maybe more. In some instances, if the depot is long and thin, a line of barrels covers the roof’s top, strategically positioned in between the buildings brick chimney’s. 

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Ponca City, Oklahoma train depot

Much debate has been made about these barrels, but there purpose was apparent: save the depot from burning to the ground. Basically, it was a fire suppression method, an early and primitive sprinkler system, if you will.

Here’s how it worked:

The barrels were solid and thick, made of hardwood (usually oak, walnut, hickory or whatever was available) and bound by heavy iron or steel hoops. This sturdiness was to keep the liquid, in this instance water, from leaking out. In many remote locations where water was scarce, there was no water tower, and the air was dry.  So he threat of fire from a passing or stopped train was increased. The trains pulling into the station were especially threatening to the depot. Cinder sparks from the wood and coal engines would land on the roof and ignite. If caught in time, someone from the station, usually a ticket agent or even a passenger would go to the roof and open the barrels. In most cases,  a permanent ladder was placed atop the slanted roof and another along the narrow crest to make it easier, in theory, to reach the barrels before the building went up in flames. Water-filled Barrels were also placed near chimneys since a stoked fire from a pot belly stove could easily create a spark which ignited the roof.

In 1869, a large roundhouse in Truckee, California caught fire and burnt to the ground. Nearly a dozen engines were parked inside. Luckily, a nearby mill worker spotted the blaze and alerted the night watchman. The building with its oil soaked boards went up quickly, but most of the engines were saved. The trains carried lumber freight along the Central Pacific line from Truckee to nearby Sacramento, so a large supply of timber was stacked inside and along the back wall. Since there was no proper supply of water nearby, saving the roundhouse, more like a tinderbox in this case, was hopeless. Thankfully, no one was killed.

When the Truckee roundhouse was rebuilt a new characteristic was added: the rooftop water barrels. After that, it was reported, several more fires flared up, but were quickly put out.

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History cannot record all the near misses, but the Truckee roundhouse fire is a good example  that the makeshift safety feature worked in principle at least that while the threat of a fire could not be eliminated, perhaps the resulting inferno could.  Not a fully reassuring notion, for sure, but what other choice did they have?

If anything, it helped calm nerves each time the train whistle blew and the sparks flew.

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Three-Mile Painting: The Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River

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John Banvard

 

By Ken Zurski

In the 1840’s, artist John Banvard created the largest, longest and most ambitious painting of its time. Figuratively rather than literally, it was named “Three-Mile Painting” because it consisted of a series of large painted scenes in sequence called a “moving panorama.”

Banvard chose the continuous landscape of the Mississippi River as his subject. He spent two years on the river traveling by boat and hunting for food to survive. He sketched hundreds of scenic vistas from St Louis to New Orleans and when finished holed himself up in Louisville, Kentucky to begin rolling and unrolling canvases and transferring sketches at a breakneck pace.

It was as massive an undertaking as the subject itself.

Each panel stood 12 feet high and together stretched for 1300 feet – not quite a quarter of a mile in total. That was far short of the “three miles” as Banvard had advertised, but who was counting?

 

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Banvard presented the work to packed houses and appreciative audiences and in 1846, by request, brought the massive painting to England and Queen Victoria for a private showing in Windsor Castle.

Banvard made a fortune and took his success personally. He fought with fellow panorama artists calling them “imitators” and in return they called Banvard ”uncultivated.” When Banvard built a castle-like estate on 60 acres in New York’s Long Island, it was admonished by locals for being overtly excessive, pretentious and impractical. They called it “Banvard’s Folly.” It later became a lavish hotel.

In 1851, in direct competition with Banvard, another panorama depiction of the Mississippi River was presented by artist John L Egan.  Although it was advertised as a whopping “15,000 feet” in length, a more factual estimate puts it closer to 348 feet.  Each panel was 8- foot high and 14-feet long.  The rolled canvas was so large that matinee viewers were treated to a stroll down the river’s stream in the afternoon while the evening performance featured a trip upstream, as the canvas was rolled back in reverse.

While Banvard claimed to be first to showcase the wonders of the mighty river on canvas, Egan’s deception is better known today because its scenes have been saved, making it the last known surviving panorama of its time.

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John L. Egan’s panel depiction of the Mississippi River

Unfortunately that is not the case with Banvard’s “Three-Mile Painting.” It was never persevered or copied. Because of its size and quantity, the panels were separated and used as scenery backdrops in opera productions.

When the canvases became worn from exposure they were shredded and recycled for insulation in houses.

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